Keeping exam repertoire fresh

With exams looming this term, students may be feeling as if they have been living with their exam pieces for aeons. I remember this feeling well, the same pieces of music facing me at my lessons, week after week…..

Nothing beats being well prepared for an exam: knowing your repertoire inside out, being entirely secure with technical work, and well practised in sight-reading, aural, musical knowledge and other components of the exam (depending on which exam board you are using) are sure-fire ways of avoiding too many exam nerves on The Day, and can guarantee a trouble-free, and, hopefully, Distinction- or Merit- worthy performance.

Some of my students have been living with their exam pieces for a year. When I did my Diploma last winter, I had been living with some of my pieces for nearly two years, yet I went into the recital room for the exam full of excitement about my pieces and keen to present them to the examiner

But what if, as the exam date looms, you feel bored with your repertoire, heartily sick of it, and desperate to learn something new? How do you keep the repertoire alive and ‘fresh’ for exam day? Here are some tips:

  • Try to remember what you liked about the pieces when you first heard them. What made you select these particular pieces for your exam?
  • What excites and interests you about these pieces?
  • What “stories” or pictures do the pieces suggest to you?
  • How will you present these pieces to the examiner? What aspects would you like to highlight in your performance?

When the exam appointments are confirmed I will be doing this exercise with my students, getting them to write down a few lines in answer to each of my points. This will help them focus on their repertoire and will ensure they think about what they playing, instead of just “typing” the notes, and will hopefully result in well-thought out performances on the big day.

Good luck to all students who are preparing for exams this term!

An earlier article from my other blog on my diploma repertoire

An article by pianist Graham Fitch on how to keep repertoire alive

2 thoughts on “Keeping exam repertoire fresh”

  1. Now that I teach, I realise I get more worried about pupils getting bored by their exam pieces than I ever got bored with mine. I feel I should be offering pupils variety and stimulation -which of course I should be doing- and, in feeling this, I can easily forget the pleasure of playing a piece many, many times until it’s “in the bones”. There are still a handful of pieces I learnt 40 years ago that I still love to play when I pick up (or sit down at) the instrument I learnt them on.

    The important thing, I suspect, is that one keeps working just as hard on the essential skill of absorbing the unfamiliar. Then there’s the choice of exam pieces. I’m sure everyone has memories of pieces that were never more than “exam pieces” and for everyone they’ll be different. As a child the mere mention of the name Swinstead made my eyes feel heavy.


    1. When I saw Felix Swinstead in a recent exam book, I wanted to run & hide – he is, to me, synonymous with tedious childhood piano lessons. My students are often astonished that I work on pieces for so long – in our short attention span modern society, they don’t always appreciate the benefit of getting really immersed in the music. I think it’s important to try to keep finding new things in one’s repertoire. I’ve been living with, studying and playing Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511 for 4 years now – I finally played it in a concert on Sunday, but it’s not ‘finished’ yet. And I’m glad, because I love it!


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